Friday, December 24, 2010
One of my favorite Christmas hymns is entitled "Angels From the Realms of Glory," and tells the story of how groups of people throughout the ages would look to the birth of Christ as the singular event in human history, and would see the Christ child as more deserving of their worship than anything else. It speaks of angels, shepherds, sages, saints, and sinners, who would leave all that they had, to come to the Savior and kneel at His feet, to praise Him and love Him and acknowledge His majesty and be healed by His mercy and love.
Angels from the realms of glory,
Wing your flight o’er all the earth;
Ye who sang creation’s story
Now proclaim Messiah’s birth.
Shepherds, in the field abiding,
Watching o’er your flocks by night,
God with us is now residing;
Yonder shines the infant light:
Sages, leave your contemplations,
Brighter visions beam afar;
Seek the great Desire of nations;
Ye have seen His natal star.
Saints, before the altar bending,
Watching long in hope and fear;
Suddenly the Lord, descending,
In His temple shall appear.
Sinners, wrung with true repentance,
Doomed for guilt to endless pains,
Justice now revokes the sentence,
Mercy calls you; break your chains.
Though an Infant now we view Him,
He shall fill His Father’s throne,
Gather all the nations to Him;
Every knee shall then bow down.
Christmas is a time of rejoicing at the good tidings of great joy delivered to all people by an angel millenia ago. It is a time of singing with the heavenly hosts, proclaiming, "Glory to God in the Highest." It is a time to re-dedicate ourselves to "peace on earth, goodwill to men." It is a time to leave our contemplations, to bend before the altar, to be filled with wondering awe. For the Savior, the Lord of heaven and earth, condescended to be born into the world He had formed, to walk among us as a humble child. He, who is King of kings, and Lord of lords, was born to a young girl and her betrothed, laid in a feeding trough, visited by shepherds, and sought by kings. At Christmas we remember that Christ came to sanctify not only the great houses of worship, not only temples and cathedrals and palaces, but also, and ever, the simple, humble places where the pure in heart dwell. He came to redeem. He came to exalt. He came to heal. He came as Emmanuel--God with us. May God be ever welcome in our homes and in our hearts.
For God with us is now residing--Mercy calls you, break your chains.
Picture from http://cdn.elev8.com/
Sunday, December 5, 2010
Sunday, July 25, 2010
Elijah’s ministry was difficult. Faced with growing idolatry among the people of Israel, brought about by the wicked king Ahab and his Phonecian princess Jezebel, the prophet had sealed the heavens for three years. In an already dry land, he had created a drought, and thus pronounced a national death sentence in hopes of turning the hearts of the people back to their God in humility.
His plan had backfired. Ahab and Jezebel, instead of repenting, had sought his life throughout the land. Forced to flee for his safety, he hid by the brook Cherith, and was fed by ravens sent by God. Eventually, the brook dried up, and the Lord sent Elijah to Zarephath, to the home of a widow woman who had reached the end of her rope, and was about to eat the last of her meager provisions, “an handful of meal in a barrel, and a little oil in a cruse: and, behold,” she said, ”I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and dress it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die” (1 Kings 17:12). The woman’s faith in feeding the prophet with what little she had was rewarded, and “the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord, which he spake by Elijah” (v.16).
At the end of three years of drought, Elijah had summoned Ahab, and all his priests, together with Jezebel’s priests and all the children of Israel, to Mount Carmel for a contest. He was tired of the people’s ambivalence, tired of seeing them turn from Jehovah to dumb idols, tired of a double-minded people who turned to the Lord only in times of trouble, but enjoyed the rites of Ba’al and Ashtaroth on the side. Elijah proposed a contest--and you know the rest. The sacrifice offered to Ba’al failed to ignite, despite the priests’ long hours of pleading and erratic dancing. Elijah’s sharp, sarcastic words found their mark as the priests failed to effect the required miracle. Then fire from heaven descended upon the water-drenched sacrifice offered to Jehovah, “and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench” (1 Kings 18:38). The assembled Israelites recognized the Lord’s power, and declared that He, truly, was God. Elijah, seizing the moment, commanded that all the idolatrous priests should be slain.
The Lord decided to end the drought, without, it seems, consulting Elijah. Rain fell, and the land revived. Jezebel, incensed by the death of her priests, vowed to kill Elijah, and once more he fled, this time to Beersheba. From there, the Lord had sent him to this mountain. There He spoke to Elijah, who had served Him well, but still had much to learn.
First the Lord asked His servant a question. “What doest thou here, Elijah?” Elijah’s recounted his ministry among stubborn and rebellious people, “And he said, I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.”
So the Lord taught an object lesson, with a powerful message for Elijah, and for each of us.
“And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice” (1 Kings 19:9-12).
Did Elijah understand the Lord’s message? It seems that he overlooked the Lord’s meaning, for his answer to the Lord’s question remained unchanged: “when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah? And he said, I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: because the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (v. 13-14).
Elijah was discouraged. It seems that he didn’t understand the meaning of the still small voice that followed the great natural disasters. But looking back over Elijah’s life and ministry, perhaps we can hear the echoes of that voice. Elijah had shown his fondness, throughout his life, for great and spectacular signs--earthquakes and whirlwinds, droughts, famines, and fire from heaven. But even with these miracles, Elijah had failed to change the heart of the king to whom he was sent. The Lord had passed by Israel, and a great drought dried up the land and killed the crops, the animals, and the poor. But the Lord was not in the drought. And after the drought a famine, but the Lord was not in the famine. And after the famine a contest and fire from heaven. But the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire a cleansing of the idolatrous priests. But the Lord was not in the killing. And after the killing a still, small voice. And there, the Lord was to be found.
The Lord was in the ravens who fed the prophet by a dried-up brook in a barren land as he hid from the searches of the king. The Lord was in the faith of a widow woman who gave charity to the prophet as he wandered in a foreign land. The Lord was in the rain that fell on Mount Carmel to water the land of a still-idolatrous king. The Lord was in the willingness of Elisha the son of Shaphat, who followed Elijah’s call when he found him at the plow (v. 19-21). The Lord was in the still, small voices that stayed faithful even in a wicked society, of which there were “seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal” (v. 18).
What are seven thousand against so many? What is one prophet against such great idolatry? What is one still, small voice in the midst of the whirlwinds and earthquakes that surround us? If we hear it, that still, small voice can be more powerful than the winds that seek to drive us from our moorings. It can be stronger than the earthquakes that seek to throw us off balance. It can be more cleansing than the fires that sweep through the land. For all these great and showy spectacles end in an instant and persuade only for a moment, but the still small voice speaks throughout them, and continues to speak even after their voices have faded. It speaks while they rage about us, and its words continue long after the winds have died down and the fires have been extinguished. It beckons to us as it beckoned to Elijah on that mountain. It pleads with us to hear the voice and recognize the hand of the Lord in the small gestures, in the things we overlook, in the voices of birds and widows and rain, in the Lord’s mercy rather than His condemnation.
We, like Elijah, will experience winds and earthquakes and fires. But the Lord is with us. For after the fire, there will always come His merciful still, small voice.
Photo from http://cornishevangelist.wordpress.com
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Shortly after Nephi and his family left Jerusalem, Nephi saw in vision many events that would occur throughout the earth's history. In speaking about the birth of Jesus Christ, the angel asked Nephi, "Knowest thou the condescension of God?" (1 Nephi 11:16). Nephi's answer was both revealing and inspiring. "I know that [God] loveth his children," he answered, "nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things" (v. 17).
The Lord loves us enough to give us the gospel. He loves us enough to answer our prayers. The Lord gives us commandments to keep us safe and happy. As the primary song tells us, he "has given me an earthly home, with parents kind and dear."
Brothers and sisters, I, like Paul, am fully persuaded that nothing in heaven, on earth, or in hell can separate us from the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord.
"He loves us because He is filled with an infinite measure of holy, pure, and indescribable love. We are important to God not because of our résumé but because we are His children. He loves every one of us, even those who are flawed, rejected, awkward, sorrowful, or broken. God’s love is so great that He loves even the proud, the selfish, the arrogant, and the wicked.
"What this means is that, regardless of our current state, there is hope for us. No matter our distress, no matter our sorrow, no matter our mistakes, our infinitely compassionate Heavenly Father desires that we draw near to Him so that He can draw near to us."
God loves all His children. His love is not provincial. It does not restrict itself. God loves men and women, children and adults, rich and poor, straight and gay, black and white, Mormon and Catholic and Buddhist and Muslim, Republicans and Democrats, Americans and Russians and Africans, the married, single, and divorced, Ph.D's and high school dropouts.
A year and a half ago, I had the chance to live in Jerusalem for a time. While I was there, I spent a lot of time among the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane. A beautiful cathedral is built over the site where, tradition has it, Jesus knelt on a rock to pray, and suffered and bled as His atoning journey began. A friend wrote about the experience, "Christ alone paid the price for sin. He had the weight of the world press down upon Him until He bled from every pore. This blood He so freely spilt, gives us comfort and healing, life and light. How grateful I am that on this night Christ would be willing to bear the burden of my sins, that I might be healed...As I sat there in the Church...I felt a great pain for the suffering that Christ suffered on my behalf. I sat there completely alone in the church and thought of when He was completely alone in the garden. I sat there in dark (the chapel is intentionally dark to represent night) as I thought of how the Messiah kneeled in darkness, pleading on my behalf to the Father. As He bore my burden, blood came from every pore. As these thoughts filled my mind, I was then filled with the most joyous happiness I have perhaps ever felt. I did not feel guilt for His pain, I felt peace. I did not feel anxiety for the suffering I caused Him, I felt forgiveness. I did not feel sadness for causing such anguish, I felt pure love. I love my Savior, and will be eternally grateful for that which He did for me, in a garden called Gethsemane. In a garden that by its very name symbolizes the freedom, life, and light that has been brought into my life through His precious blood."
I feel much the same way. I love my Savior. I am grateful for the freedom and light He has given me, for the peace that His love has brought me. I, like my friend, have "felt to sing the song of redeeming love."I had another friend some years ago, who was struggling with a trial I had never experienced and could not understand mentally. As I watched him go through it, I saw the depths of hell in his eyes. I saw his pain and anguish, and I chose to love him, and I hurt with him. But there came a point when I had nothing left to give him, no more emotional energy for him, when my heart was empty and I had exhausted my natural strength. And at that moment, I was filled with a love so deep I knew it did not come from within me. I saw my friend as the Savior saw him. I loved him the way the Savior loved him. When I had nothing left to give, the Lord filled me with His love, gave me His strength, showed me how much and how purely He loved both of us. He gave me a portion of that love. He taught us and healed us, showed His willingness to quickly forgive and redeem. As I grew closer to my friend, I grew closer to God. I saw that God was not the wrathful being I had imagined. I saw that, as John put it, "God is love," he said, "and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him" (1 John 4:16).
Because of Christ's great sacrifice, we can have hope for the present and for the future. We can find peace in this life, and eternal life in the world to come. We can conquer fear, for "there is no fear in love, but perfect love casteth out all fear, because fear hath torment" (1 John 4:18). When we are filled with the love of God, we can find peace even in a world of turmoil, even when, like Nephi, we do not understand the meaning of all things.
Nephi's statement has become more and more meaningful to me over the years, as I have come to grips with many things I do not understand. I have asked questions for which there are no answers. At times I have cried in frustration to the heavens, and the heavens have remained silent. But one thing that I have felt over and over again is the assurance that God loves me, that He knows me, that He wants me back, that nothing that is or was or ever will be can separate me from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Until that day, I know and bear witness that each of us are children of God, and that God loves His children.
Picture from http://www.illuminatemind.com/uploads/Image/Spirit%20eagle.jpg
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Sunday, May 9, 2010
Here I present what is probably the first (and last) talk you will ever hear (or read) about our Mother in Heaven. Happy Mother's Day!
Mothers deserve a day of honor. The women who carried us inside of them for nine months, who gave birth to us, who raised us, who nurtured us and made us who we are, deserve our respect and love. I recognize, of course, that we all have different relationships with our mothers. Some of our mothers are members of the Church, some never were, and some have turned away from the light and knowledge they once received. Some of our mothers were kind and loving, and some were abusive or neglectful. Some of us have mothers who have passed away. Some of us never knew our mothers.
Regardless of our particular family circumstance in mortality, one of the most glorious and comforting doctrines of the restored gospel is that we are members of an eternal Heavenly family. We are all brothers and sisters, and we are all children of the same Heavenly Parents. Though we often speak of our Heavenly Father, it is equally true that we have a Heavenly Mother. On this day created to honor mothers, it is about our Mother in Heaven that I wish to speak. I invite the Spirit to be with me and with you as we discuss this sacred topic.
First, I will discuss why this doctrine is important to us in the broader gospel context. Second, I will describe some attributes of our Heavenly Mother. Finally, I will discuss how an understanding of this doctrine changes our behavior and makes a real difference in our lives.
First, why is this doctrine important? In the book The Articles of Faith, Elder James E. Talmage wrote: “We are expressly told that God is the Father of spirits, and to apprehend the literalness of this solemn truth we must know that a Mother of spirits is an existent personality.”(1) Joseph Smith has told us that “if men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.”(2) And speaking of the nature of God, Elder Erastus Snow said, “God consists of both an exalted man and an exalted woman... there can be no god except he is composed of the man and woman united, and there is not in all the eternities that exist, nor ever will be, a God in any other way.”(3) Therefore, when our scriptures refer to “God,” (or in Hebrew, the plural word “Elohim”), the word “God” is interchangeable with the phrase “Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother.”
From these three prophets we learn the importance of the knowledge that we have a Mother in Heaven. Without that knowledge, the plan of salvation is incomplete, since without an understanding that we have a Mother we would lack an understanding of what it means to call God our “Father.” We would lose sight of the true nature of God. Without this crucial understanding, we could not grasp the nature and importance of eternal marriage and eternal families. If we do not comprehend the character of God—and remember that “God” means “Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother”—we do not comprehend ourselves, for we are made in Their image and with the potential to become like Them.
With the knowledge that we have a God that consists of a married couple, an exalted husband and wife, who desire us to become like them, we must ask ourselves: What are They like? What attributes must we possess in order to become like Them? We could all list many attributes of our Father in Heaven, but what are some attributes of our Mother in Heaven?
Elder John A. Widtsoe wrote, “In accordance with Gospel philosophy there are males and females in heaven. Since we have a Father, who is our God, we must also have a mother, who possesses the attributes of Godhood.”(4)
From Elder Widtsoe we learn that our Mother in heaven possesses the attributes of Godhood. As She is the Mother of our spirits and the companion of our Heavenly Father, we must also understand that She has a glorified body of flesh and bone. Melvin J. Ballard remarked, “No matter to what heights God has attained or may attain, he does not stand alone; for side by side with him, in all her glory, a glory like unto his, stands a companion, the Mother of his children...a glorified, exalted, ennobled Mother.”(5) From Elder Ballard we learn that our Mother in Heaven is a noble and exalted being of great glory.
It is important to recognize that our Mother in Heaven is not merely an appendage to the work of the Father—She is in every way united with Him in Their work to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of men and women (Moses 1:39). Elder Bruce R. McConkie has told us, “An exalted and glorified Man of Holiness (Moses 6:57) could not be a Father unless a Woman of like glory, perfection, and holiness was associated with him as a Mother.”(6) She is His equal in every conceivable way. Without Her, He would not be who He is. And though we pray to our Heavenly Father in the name of the Son, the unity that our Father shares with His wife makes it clear that when we ask for the counsel of one, we receive the united counsel and love of both.
We know that our Mother in Heaven loves us and has a great influence on us, for we are Her children. President Kimball said, “we get a sense of the...queenly elegance of our Heavenly Mother, and knowing how profoundly our mortal mothers have shaped us here, do we suppose her influence on us as individuals to be less?(7) Just as the best of mortal mothers love and teach their children as they grow to adulthood, so our Heavenly Mother loves and teaches us as we grow to become like Her and like our Father.
Finally, how does an understanding of this important doctrine affect us? How does it impact our behavior to know that we have a Mother in Heaven in whose image we are made who is a God, who loves us, and who is united and equal with our Heavenly Father? How does an understanding of this doctrine bring us closer to Christ and therefore closer to our Heavenly Parents?
From the example of our Heavenly Parents, we learn that we are to be as united and equal in our marriages as our Heavenly Parents are in Theirs. In order that we may be prepared to return to Their presence and live as They live, there is no place for superiority or inequality in a marriage. We learn that perfect unity between spouses gives a marriage power—Godly power—just as the unity between our Heavenly Parents gives Them power and dominion. Indeed, without unity between husband and wife, there is no exaltation, there is no godhood. Truly we can see that, “neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:11), for in the Lord, both man (the Father) and woman (the Mother) are united as a couple, possessing the same power, dominion, glory, and exaltation to the same degree that they are united as one.
When we see our spouses as the other half of the God we will someday become, we will not be inclined to be selfish in our interactions with them, to put them down or to belittle them. Instead, we will see our husbands and wives—and indeed, all men and women—as children made in the image and possessing the Divine attributes of a united God, our Eternal Father and Mother. With this knowledge, we will better understand why They value marriage, motherhood, and fatherhood, both in this life and in eternity. Only by understanding our Eternal Father and Mother can we understand the true purpose of earthly fatherhood and motherhood.
I will close by reading an excerpt from an article in The Millennial Star, which was the Church’s newspaper in Great Britain: “The love of God is often illustrated by showing what an earthly father will do for a child. But does a mother do less?...When we draw nearer the Divine Man, lo! we shall find a Divine Woman smiling upon us. Much ... in music, ... poetry, and ... art, is the expression of the soul’s instinctive sigh for a Divine Mother. In the Father’s many mansions we shall find her and be satisfied.”(8)
I bear my solemn witness that we have a Mother in Heaven who loves us, who is the Godly equal of our Father in Heaven, who possesses with Him all might, majesty, and dominion in perfect and eternal unity. I bear witness that Their marital unity and Their parenthood are perfect examples for us as we prepare for and enter into marriage, the order of the Priesthood that is necessary to become exalted as They are. I bear witness that one day we will find Them both and know Them and be like Them, and our soul’s instinctive desires will thereby be satisfied, and I do it in the sacred name of Their Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
1 (A. of F., p. 443).
2 The King Follett Discourse
3 Journal of Discourses, Vol.19, p.269-271, Erastus Snow, March 3, 1878
4 A Rational Theology, p.69
5 Melvin J. Ballard, cited in Bryant S. Hinckley, Sermons and Missionary Services of Melvin Joseph Ballard, p. 205.)
6 Mormon Doctrine, p.517
7 Spencer W. Kimball, “The True Way of Life and Salvation,” Ensign, May 1978, 4
8 The Millennial Star, Vol 34 no. 9, Feb 27, 1872, p.140
Sunday, April 11, 2010
On the day of His resurrection, Christ appeared to the women who came to the empty tomb, then to the assembled disciples as they hid in an upper room. He ate with them again, and gave them the opportunity to feel His wounds and gain an intimate knowledge of the reality of His death and resurrection. They must have been overjoyed to see Him--their grief and lamentation turned into praise and adoration.
That evening, John records that "Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe" (20:24-25).
In the break between this verse and the next are eight days left unrecorded. I have thought this week about what took place in those intervening days. Thomas had not been present, and so could not believe that such an unprecedented thing as the Resurrection had taken place. Did Thomas regret whatever circumstance had kept him from that room that Sunday evening? Did he mourn the lost opportunity? Did he wonder if he would ever get a chance to see the friend he had lost?
What did Thomas think about during that week? Did the other disciples try to convince Thomas of their experience? One by one, did they bear testimony of the living Christ? Did Thomas's heart break to hear them? Did he want to believe that Christ was alive, but simply found their tale too fantastical to swallow?
Did the other disciples think less of Thomas for his unbelief? Did Thomas think less of himself, that the other disciples had been given an experience that he had been denied? Did he doubt his own relationship with the Lord he loved? Did he pray and seek for an understanding of why he, out of all of the disciples, had been left out of this magnificent event?
A week passed--a week that must have been the longest week of Thomas's life, a week that must have tried his faith and made him question his high calling. Only then did Thomas receive the great blessing of seeing his Lord. His response to that manifestation demonstrates that he does not deserve the pejorative title "Doubting Thomas." Rather, I like to call him "Thomas, the Believer."
"And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God. Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed" (John 20:26-29).
There have been times in my life when I have felt like Thomas--left out in the cold, wanting to believe, but doubting, like I'm the only one missing out on some great cosmic secret that everyone around me seems to understand so readily. I grate to hear others question my faith and devotion, applying a formulaic approach to the gospel, and concluding that because I do not yet believe what they believe, my lack of knowledge must be due to a lack of righteous desire, earnest prayer, or sincere searching. In doing so, they forget that the gospel is not a formula, that God is not a vending machine, that things of the spirit are more complicated than reductionist logic will allow, that just as the wind "bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8). Spiritual experiences and their accompanying heavenly knowledge, though immutably promised (Doc. & Cov. 104:2), are non-programmable and cannot be forced.
Thomas never denied his testimony of the things he did know, even while he was waiting for a experiential confirmation of the things he did not know. In this same vein came the Lord's invocation, "blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed." Going forward in faith, with an eye single to the glory of God, even when the way is uncertain, when the logic of a situation will not permit a blind belief in a self-contradictory miracle, will be rewarded with the Lord's blessings, in the Lord's own time and in His own way. When we cry out with the honesty of incomplete knowledge, with faith seeking understanding, "Lord, I believe! Help thou mine unbelief," He will hear our prayers and visit us in our afflictions. He may not remove our heartaches or answer our questions immediately, but His love for us will not diminish because of them. On the contrary--I believe His love for us will only increase as He sees our faithfulness and discipleship, even in times when our faith and our knowledge are lacking and incomplete. When we have times like Thomas, we can find comfort in the love that our Savior has for us, even in our mortal weakness, and in pressing forward in faithful discipleship, receive the blessings promised to those "that have not seen, and yet have believed."
"And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name" (John 20:30-31).
Sunday, April 4, 2010
By John Updike
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that — pierced — died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.
And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.
From Updike, John. "Telephone Poles and Other Poems" (New York: Alfred A. Knopf,1961).
I love Updike's beautiful poem, especially his sense of the literal nature of Christ's resurrection and the miracles that accompanied it, reflected in phrases like "weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair" (Call me a nerd; a reference to Max Planck in an Easter poem made me grin). I have appreciated the opportunity I have had to visit the places where the stories of the scriptures occurred, and to become acquainted with the real places and real people involved in the stories I have long loved. Now these places are real to me--full of meaning, their dust blowing in my eyes and their birds chirping in my ears, their water lapping at my feet and their trees shading my face, their cool stones giving me a refuge and standing as a monument against time.
The scriptures are about us, it is true, but there is another side to the coin. The scriptures are about people who were very different from us, who lived in places far from our homes. They are beautiful metaphors, but they are not just metaphors, not just morality plays. They are also wonderfully literal explorations of the loves of real people, who lived in real places, felt real emotions, and had real experiences with the divine.
My testimony is of the literal reality of the scriptural accounts of the life of Christ. I know He was born in a stable, laid in a manger, and worshipped by shepherds. I know He fed thousands with a few loaves and fishes. I know He healed the lepers, gave sight to the blind, unstopped the ears of the deaf, and raised the dead. I know He suffered in Gethsemane, was crucified on a tree, died, was buried, and literally rose again the third day. I know He stands today at the right hand of the Father, and He will literally come again to judge the living and the dead.
Let us not mock God with metaphor, for He literally lives.
Saturday, April 3, 2010
This has been a truly inspiring and beautiful Holy Week.
On Palm Sunday, I attended services at a Methodist church in Salt Lake, where their bell choir's canticle and their choir's selection from Wagner accompanied the exultant hearts of the congregants, who praised the Lord with palms, as had His people anciently. I spent time throughout the week arranging a song composed by a dear friend, which bore beautiful testimony of Christ's mission as our "Savior, King, and Friend." The spring cleaning associated with Passover came next, as I purged my home of leavened items and prepared a traditional meal of roasted lamb, rice, and unleavened bread. Wednesday and Thursday night I ate a ceremonial seder dinner with close friends and loved ones, and as we discussed the Lord's deliverance of the children of Israel from bondage, and the Lord's last supper with His disciples, my heart was stirred in remembrance. Truly this night was different from all other nights.
On Good Friday, I spent the morning thinking about the physical punishments that my Savior suffered that day. In a way I hadn't expected, I confronted my own discomfort with pain and recognized the salvific nature of that suffering. I spent the afternoon in Salt Lake's majestic cathedral, first for a meditation on Christ's seven statements from the cross. I have holy envy for the emphasis on meditation in the Catholic faith. There is nothing quite like a cathedral to draw one's mind upwards in contemplation of holiness. Following the meditation, the cathedral filled with people, who fell still as the children's choir walked out, dressed in their choir robes. They stood behind a wooden screen, and the air filled with music. Their sensitive rendition of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater seemed to soar over the congregants, the notes hanging in the air with an ethereal beauty.
Stabat Mater is a Latin poem that meditates on the sufferings of Mary when she saw her son abused and crucified. As I listened, with the acoustics of the cathedral making the already-lovely music transcendent, I realized, for perhaps the first time, that Mary was the only one who had a sure knowledge of Jesus' divinity. Others had seen angels, witnessed miracles, or received a testimony by the Holy Spirit, but Mary was the only one who knew of a surety that Jesus was who He said He was. She knew that, while yet a virgin, she had conceived, and she knew her child was God's divine Son. So while any mother's soul would ache to see her son in such pain, Mary's pain would have been so much greater because of her perfect knowledge of His identity. She watched her son whipped, mocked, and condemned. She stood with Him at the foot of the cross and heard His last words and watched Him die. And through it all, she knew beyond the possibility of doubt that her son, the man that her people were destroying, was God's Only Begotten Son in the flesh, the Messiah of the Jews, the Savior of the world. How she must have wept! How she must have ached to run to His side, to comfort Him as she had when He was a child in her home! How she must have longed to embrace Him! How she must have mourned over His lifeless form! Though it is not customary in the LDS tradition to think about Mary, her life filled my mind. Her pain engulfed me.
The music ended, and the congregants filed out. I remained in the cathedral, praying, reading, and meditating on the last days of the Savior's life. I read from the scriptures, from the words of modern prophets and scholars, and meditated on the meaning of Christ's infinite atoning journey. I found sober meaning in the five sorrowful mysteries of the rosary--the agony in the garden, the scourging at the pillar, the crowning with thorns, carrying the cross, and the crucifixion on Golgotha's cruel tree. Clothed in black, I mourned the death of my Savior. I mourned to think that I had caused Him such pain, that His death had been required to atone for my stubborn pride.
"For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die.
The Stations of the Cross service that evening began with the words of a Bach Chorale,
O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown...
What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners’ gain; Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.
The clergy then processed around the sanctuary, carrying the cross. At each station we joined them in praising the Lord for His redemptive suffering and death, read the scriptural story, prayed for strength to remain faithful, and sang a hymn of remembrance. Though I wouldn't describe the day as "happy," it was certainly Good. The quiet contemplation occasioned by the events of that day led to what a friend has called "a swelling of the soul," as my heart reached out in devotion, stretching to touch the wounds of God.
As I left the cathedral, I was shocked to see street preachers protesting outside, waving their defamatory signs and screaming their hateful slogans. I was filled with a deep sadness to think that anyone could be hardened and irreverent enough to disrupt the spirit of something so holy. And then, in a flash, I realized how appropriate it was that some small part of the taunts that met Christ on His last day should be thrown at His followers as they remembered His painful journey two millenia later. Those who screamed, "Crucify Him!" had likewise lost their reverence for the One who was most holy. He had told His disciples to expect opposition, "If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you" (John 15:18). "But be of good cheer; I have overcome the world" (16:33).
As I drove past these people, the words of the Master came into my mind, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye?" (Matthew 5:44-46). What reward, indeed? If Christ could forgive and pray for the men who put Him on the cross, why did I find it so challenging to love difficult people? Why, when I tried to pray for these people, did the words stick in my throat?
That evening I learned something of the contrast between the Lord's magnificent power and my own weakness, between His transformative grace and my own petty small-mindedness, between His self-sacrificing love and my selfish indifference. Tears sprang to my eyes unbidden as I realized that even on this, the holiest of days, my nature was still so very far from my Savior's.
I drove down the street to the Salt Lake Temple. I decided to do initiatories that evening, though I usually avoid them. The beauty of being with women that evening, women clothed with power and authority, was healing to my soul. In a place filled with light, I was washed, anointed, and clothed by women of faith, as my Savior had been during the last week of His ministry. As I finished the work, I felt impressed to ask the last worker a question that has troubled me for a long time. As she answered, her empathy and love caressed my broken heart, and the Spirit filled the room in a way that cannot be written. As we embraced, our tears flowed freely and the love of the Savior surrounded us and drew us into the communion that Christ had prayed for, "that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us" (John 17:21). Sustained by that love, I went to the celestial room. Sitting in a quiet antechamber behind a stained-glass window, I received an answer to prayer that I had not expected, but had earnestly hoped for. And I discovered, once again, what by now should no longer surprise me--the Father's plan really is all about Jesus. His love for all His children--and for me individually--is infinite and endless. In speaking with Him and gaining that knowledge once again, I was overcome.
Saturday was General Conference. I got to go to the Conference Center with friends for both sessions. To sit and learn from the Lord's prophets is always a beautiful experience, but this year, Conference seemed especially good. The talks focused on the gospel of Jesus Christ, and how we can care for our families and neighbors and find faith and hope in a frightening world--a very timely message. The music added immeasurably to the Spirit. As I was heading to get in line for the first session, I ran into a dear friend I met in Jerusalem, who is currently serving a mission on Temple Square. I haven't seen her for far too long, and since I'll soon be leaving the state, I probably won't have another chance to see her for several years. The wealth of shared experience hung around us as we clung to each other. We spent Holy Week together last year, waving palm branches in Bethphage on Palm Sunday, celebrating Mass in Gethsemane on Good Friday, and looking over the Mount of Olives at sunrise on Easter morning. Now she is spending her life testifying of Christ, in Arabic when possible, and always with the Spirit. Her life is full of light, and she continues to inspire me. Seeing her there was a tender blessing.
Today was Resurrection Sunday. I awoke early, and read the accounts of the first Resurrection morning. Having stood at the foot of the cross, and at the sepulchre weeping, during the past few days, this morning I ran with the disciples to the empty tomb, and saw, and believed. The morning meant so much more to me because of the week that had preceded it. I listened to a friend's beautiful song, evocative of the emotions that filled Mary Magdalene at seeing the empty tomb. And I listened to Handel's Messiah, that beautiful Easter piece that immortalizes holy scripture with soaring music. I watched Conference in my living room, in the peaceful stillness that my soul craves, and was buoyed up and inspired to do and be better, to go forward with faith in the One who atoned for me and so conquered sin and death.
May each of you have a happy Resurrection Sunday. For Christ is risen! Hosanna, He is risen indeed!
Friday, April 2, 2010
We tend to forget about it in the LDS Church, running straight from the wondrous atonement begun in Gethsemane, past the scourging and the trials and the cross and all the painful bits, and straight to the glory of resurrection morning. But the cross stands in the way. Jesus, in speaking to the Nephites, defined His gospel in terms of the cross, "this is the gospel which I have given unto you—that I came into the world to do the will of my Father... And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me" (3 Nephi 27:13-14).
As I have meditated on Christ's journey this week, I have been filled with an overwhelming sense of how great the price of our redemption was, of how much love it took to complete His infinite atonement. I have been struck with a profound sense of gratitude and awe that the sinless Son of God would care for me enough to suffer to greatly--and not just to suffer, but also to die for me. He endured the agony in the garden, when the weight of the aggregate incompleteness of fallen man was imposed upon him. He was betrayed by one He loved and abandoned by all others, mocked, spit upon, and tried by the men He had created. He was scourged at the pillar, crowned with thorns, and forced to carry His own cross. Finally, as the culmination of his suffering, He was nailed to Calvary's cruel cross to die. With His last breaths, He forgave those responsible for His agony. He was abandoned even by His Father, and His last prayers went unanswered. His suffering is greater than any that I could experience. It is great enough to demand my reverence, my love, and my complete and unreserved devotion.
I think of my own sufferings, of how they pale by comparison. When I feel like my trials are too much to bear, that the pain is too great, the loneliness too intense, I imagine myself standing before my Savior, showing Him the paper cuts and scratches on my hands and feet where the thorns and branches along my life's road have grazed my skin. And I imagine Him looking at my wounds with love, and showing me His own. And as I look, I find that the contrast is too great for words--the holes in His hands beside the callusses on mine, the thorns in His brow beside the sweat on mine, the stripes on His back beside the knapsack on mine. And in this dream, as I fall at His feet to worship Him, and see the marks of the nails even there, I finally understand that my Lord walked a more painful road than I had imagined, that He really has borne my griefs and carried my sorrows, that the punishment that brings me peace was laid upon Him. I weep to see that I have caused Him so much pain, to know that He was willing to bear it because of His love for me. And in that transcendent, infinite, sacrificial love, my pain is turned into joy, my grief into love, my confusion into understanding, my forgetfulness into awe.
Truly, it is wonderful that He should care for me enough to die for me. Oh, it is wonderful, wonderful to me!
Monday, March 29, 2010
We begin with the day known as Palm Sunday, which marks Christ's triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem. Two centuries ago, a man known as Jesus of Nazareth rode into the city from His night residence in Bethany, in the home of Simon the Leper and his children Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, all dear personal friends of Jesus. He rode on the back of a donkey, in the manner of the ancient kings of Israel as they went to be crowned. The symbol did not escape the notice of the people, who, having heard of His arrival, "spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way. And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!" (Matthew 21:8-9). Hosanna, they cried--literally, "Oh, save us now!" They recognized Christ as the king He was, and quoted (and sang, perhaps) a Messianic Psalm (Psalm 118) to greet Him.
The scene was enough to interest the rest of the city's inhabitants, whose numbers had swelled tremendously in anticipation of the Passover, which would be celebrated in just a few days. Newcomers wanted an explanation, and Matthew records that "all the city was moved, saying, Who is this? And the multitude said, This is Jesus the prophet of Nazareth of Galilee" (Matthew 21:10-11). The disciples were not shy about proclaiming the greatness of their Master, as Luke records, "the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen" (Luke 19:37).
All this adoration bothered the Pharisees immensely, as Luke records: "And some of the Pharisees from among the multitude said unto him, Master, rebuke thy disciples" (Luke 19:39). But despite their plots against His life, and the harm He knew would come from so much publicity, the Savior refused to rebuke those who acknowledged the truth: that He who then descended the Mount of Olives was about to descend below all things, to rise above all things, that He might be in and through all things, the light of truth (Doc. & Cov. 88:6). He was and is the "light [that] shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not" (John 1:5). And though that week did not end as the disciples then expected, by the end of it they knew even more powerfully that Christ was the Lord, "for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me" (Isaiah 49:23).
Instead, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, and testified that He was the promised Messiah: "And he answered and said unto them...if these [disciples] should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out" (Luke 19:40).
I feel driven to echo the testimony of these disciples, and to speak for the mute stones that would cry out. Like the disciples, I praise the Lord for the mighty works that I have seen. Like them, I cry Hosanna!--Oh, save me! My heart shouts praises to the Holy One of Israel. I praise Him for His light, which pierces the darkness of my heart. I praise Him for His healing power and mercy. I praise Him because He weeps, and because He laughs, because He smiles and sings and loves and teaches and heals. I praise Him because He died and because He lives. I love Him. I have given my life to His service.
Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!
Friday, March 26, 2010
What of this woman's story can we reconstruct, without any mention of her? What lessons can we learn from her life? I've managed to gain a lot from her. Bear with me for a moment as I construct what I believe is a convincing picture of her character.
First, let's review her husband's life. His father, also named Alma, was the high priest over the church in his land. Alma Jr., therefore, was in line for the office, and should have been among the most righteous, given his noble parentage. Instead, Alma and his buddies, the sons of Mosiah, went about trying to destroy the church of God. Alma "became a very wicked and an idolatrous man. And he was a man of many words, and did speak much flattery to the people; therefore he led many of the people to do after the manner of his iniquities. And he became a great hinderment to the prosperity of the church of God; stealing away the hearts of the people; causing much dissension among the people; giving a chance for the enemy of God to exercise his power over them" (Mosiah 27:8-9).
So Alma, in spite of his father's teachings, was a bad apple. I imagine, based on his description of his torment and his later attempts to make restitution for his sins, that he was guilty of apostasy, idolatry, adultery, hedonism, and a few other fairly heinous things. I also imagine, leading the wild lifestyle he was, that he wasn't married at the time. (This argument also holds up if he was married, but it's simpler and more intuitive if he was a wild, wicked bachelor.)
Now the short version of the rest of his story (this post is supposed to be about his wife, after all): An angel appears to Alma and his buddies as they're out worshipping idols, sleeping around, and generally breaking every known commandment. The angel gives Alma a royal telling-off, and he falls into a coma for a few days wherein he is tortured with all his sins, comes to Christ, applies the Atonement, repents, wakes up, and testifies of Christ, his past sins, and his current saved condition. The he and his buddies spend years going around preaching the gospel, confessing their sins, and trying to repair the wrongs they had done. Alma eventually becomes high priest (Alma 4:4), like his father. He has some sons. He gives some of the most powerful and profound discourses in the Book of Mormon, and, at the end of his life, was translated (we think) (Alma 45:18-19).
(For a more complete account of his life, see Alma 36, Mosiah 27, Robert Millet's article, and the Wikipedia article on him.)
Great. So how about his wife? We don't know much about her. Maybe she isn't mentioned because she died in childbirth. Maybe she outlived Alma. No idea. We don't have any of her words recorded.
But, going with the assumption that she married Alma after his spectacular conversion, we know one major thing about her: She must have understood and had faith in the power of the Atonement. Think of it--Alma and his father must have been well-known in their community. Alma's people must have known of their leader's greatness and his struggles with his wayward son. They would have heard him preach to them, and seen the sorrow in his eyes as he preached against the sin that was growing in the hearts of his people, hearts he knew were being led away by his own son. There must have been sleepless nights for Alma Senior and his wife as they wondered how they had failed as parents, and what they could do to reclaim their son. Alma Senior organized a group fast and prayer when Alma Jr. was struck down, and Alma Jr.'s testimony, confession, and missionary work were public. So his wife would have known of his prior rebellion. She would have known of the depth of his apostasy and wickedness. She may even have personally known the people whose testimonies he destroyed, the women whose virginity he took, the people he flattered away from their covenants and responsibilities. The community could not have been so large that she would have been unaware of Alma's past, for "this thing was not done in a corner" (Acts 26:26).
Yet she married Alma and bore him three sons: Helaman, Shiblon, and Corianton (who strayed while on his mission but later returned and repented). She must have been a great woman to be the wife of such a great prophet, and to raise such great sons.
I wonder if her husband's past ever tortured her. I wonder what she thought about before she married him. I can't believe that his past didn't cross her mind. I imagine that she thought long and hard about his repentance, and about what repentance really means. She must have understood that the Atonement really does have the power to change a person, to give them a different character, to change their desires. She had the faith required to marry him because she knew that the power of the Atonement was real, that she didn't have to worry about her husband straying again, because he had experienced a "might change of heart," and had "no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually" (Mosiah 5:2).
One of my greatest fears has always been that I would marry a man who was abusive or unfaithful to me or to the Lord. What Alma's wife did strikes me as terrifying, which may be why I admire her so much for her understanding of a principle I believe, but have yet to fully comprehend.
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already...And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light" (John 3:16-19).
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